The Principles of War Podcast
Vietnam moral centre of gravity
moral Center of gravityPodcast

61 – Vietnam – An Epic Tragedy and the Moral Center of Gravity

We are very honoured to have Sir Max Hastings discussing elements of the moral Centres of Gravity in the Vietnam War.  Sir Max is the author of Vietnam:  An Epic Tragedy.  This is a book of incredible scope, covering the history of Vietnam from before the start of the 20th Century and at once providing individual accounts of the war to highlight the strategic issues that drove the outcomes.  Whilst Sir Max doesn’t mention the phrase Centre of Gravity at all in the book, let alone the moral Centre of Gravity, the book to me, is focused on the concept of the moral Centre of Gravity.  Reading through the book it becomes clear that the system is made up of multiple Centre’s of Gravity.  Those of the people, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), and the people of the United States.  These are centres of gravity that permit, support and enable the prosecution of armed conflict that occurred across both North and South Vietnam.  The other Centers of Gravity exist within the militaries of the 3 countries (and allies), predominantly the PAVN, ARVN and MACV.  The militaries draw their manpower from the civil population and fund equipment purchases and the war effort through the economy.  The economic burden of fighting wars impacts the populace.  This interaction between civil and military needs to be viewed and managed through the actions of Information Operations.  In the Vietnam War, this was predominantly through the media.  As a journalist, Sir Max brings a unique perspective to this component of the war, which was misunderstood by the United States.

“You know you never beat us on the battlefield,” said the American Colonel. The North Vietnamese Colonel pondered the remark for a moment. “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”

In this episode, I ask Sir Max 5 questions to highlight moral COG issues within the war.  In doctrine, the Moral Centre of Gravity has slipped from the limelight, and moral dislocation has been dropped as a dislocation method.  Is this right?  As we add the information / cyber domain, is that not almost entirely the domain of the moral?  As we look at recent operations across a spectrum of AOs, is not the moral COG more important than ever?

  1. Ap Bac was a  key battle and highlighted some of the issues that would undermine the US efforts in South Vietnam.  Why were the lessons from Ap Bac continually ignored by the US military?
  2. Some ARVN units fought very bravely, and yet some didn’t and there appeared to be widespread corruption in the Officer ranks.  What was the cause of this and how much of an impact did it have on the morale and fighting power of the ARVN units?
  3. To what degree was the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, with his anti-Buddhist policies impact the ability of South Vietnam to resist Communism.
  4. When the Marines landed at Da Nang on the 8th of March, 1965,  no one had informed the South Vietnamese that they were coming, let alone asked for permission.  Walter Lippmann had written that “It used to be a war of the South Vietnamese assisted by the Americans.  It is now becoming an American war very inefficiently assisted by the South Vietnamese.”  What caused the change in policy with the American war effort?
  5. Institutionally, the United States appears to have failed to heed the warnings from the troops on the ground about the best way to improve the situation, men like John Paul Vann and David Hackworth.  What do you think caused their reluctance to listen to the lessons learnt and instead look to metrics like body count of indicators of success?

Listen to the podcast to hear Sir Max’s discussion about these topics, based on extensive research and his time in Vietnam and access to the key decision-makers of the time.  As you listen to the discussion, think about the relationship between the Government’s, the people and the Armed Forces, and what actions were taken to decrease the effectiveness of the enemies Moral Centre of Gravity.

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